with Kathleen Williams and Nick Delffs
It’s easy to talk about an artist’s growth as a series of musical decisions: an expanding sonic palette, a change in mood or tempo, an escape from the trappings of genre. It’s harder to talk about an artist’s personal—or even spiritual—growth, because that kind of progress is hard to track. Until, that is, an album like Y La Bamba’s Ojos Del Sol comes along and screams of radical transformation on every level. The Portland act’s fourth offering is a sweeping, playful and vulnerable collection that’s ripe with both musical and personal discovery. From the intimate, contemplative verses of the Spanish-language title track to the revelations delivered over the loping beats of “Ostrich,” this is an album that’s painstakingly produced while remaining emotionally raw.
Throughout the collection, Y La Bamba frontwoman Luz Elena Mendoza returns to themes of searching and metamorphosis. On one level, this is born from the Y La Bamba frontwoman’s continuing exploration of her identity as Mexican woman. Both of Mendoza’s parents grew up in Mexico—Luz was born in San Francisco, then brought up in a strict Catholic household in Southern Oregon. She spent her childhood summers playing in the orchards of California’s San Joaquin Valley with her cousins, and it was there that she soaked up the melodies and stories that were being told through traditional folk songs with three-part harmonies. These are sounds that remain a vital building block of the songs on Ojos Del Sol, an album which she says represents “a celebration of family and community.”
But on another level, Ojos Del Sol is about Luz’s search for shared humanity outside of her own community, and for a faith that is greater than just religion. These are themes that run throughout Y La Bamba’s body of work work—with roots in a 2003 journey to India, which found Mendoza falling ill and trading her Christianity for something broader—but there’s a maturity to Ojos Del Sol that speaks to true, lasting transformation. You can hear this on the lush “Kali,” where she sings—with wonderment rather than fear—that “to know yourself is to lose everything.” And you can hear it on the album’s epic closer, “Ulysses,” where Mendoza sings that her life is “written in sand and ash and stone.”
These are songs built to soundtrack coming to grips not just with one’s own mortality, but with the fragility of the world. This is heady, emotional fare, and “this record is about being a mother to these emotions,” Mendoza says.
Her clarity of voice is intimately tied to a renewed musical approach, which Luz attributes to a greater self-awareness that developed through recent collaborations with singer-songwriters Edna Vazquez and Lila Downs, as well as an exploration of mariachi, cumbia, and Latin pop with Calexico’s Sergio Mendoza—no relation—on a collaborative 2015 album released under the name Los Hijos De La Montaña.
Those collaborations helped Mendoza find her own voice as a more confident producer and songwriter on an album that is often a stripped-down affair. Mendoza plays guitar throughout Ojos Del Sol, and worked actively with composer Richie Greene to create a new sonic voice. Percussion from another regular Mendoza collaborator, Nick Delffs (Shaky Hands, Death Songs), is a welcome near-constant that adds depth and soul to the album. To that same end, Mendoza hand-cut stencil art pieces, which appear in Ojos Del Sol’s liner notes, to pair with each new song. All of this is presented as a cohesive offering, an entry in Y La Bamba’s ongoing musical conversation about community, about the self, and about survival.
“I am thankful for all of my hardships,” Mendoza says in the album’s liner notes. “They have guided me to find rest in my soul, time after time. Over and over again.”
Nick Delffs is a seeker. He’d never identify himself that way. He’s unassuming and self-effacing, careful to discuss song meanings and biographical details without indulgence or melodrama. Delffs cut his teeth playing basement shows in Portland a dozen years ago, just before that city’s cover was irreversibly blown. It was a time when being musically ambitious meant impressing other local musicians. You were a joke, in that world, if you proclaimed yourself an artist or promoted your band with any zeal. So Delffs would probably find “seeker” a rather grandiose title.
But Nick Delffs is, in fact, a seeker. He’s an old-school rustler of the human condition; a tireless navigator of social and spiritual landscapes; a genuinely curious and wide-eyed, mankind-enthusiast. Soon after meeting him, one gets the impression that Delffs could be dropped in some far corner of the Earth and he’d not only survive, but he’d make a lot of friends—maybe even start a new band. In both casual conversation and his songwriting, Delffs gravitates to the universal. That’s his search. His life’s work is in the identification and removal of our shared illusions. And that is, largely, what Delffs writes songs about. Songs come to him when he’s “feeling detached from the world but totally in love with it at the same time,” he says. “Mostly they come when I am patient and I don’t need them or care about them too much.”
They happen to be pretty catchy songs. Delffs first emerged in 2003 as the frontman for the seminal Portland band The Shaky Hands, known for their jangly, pulsing and introspective songs and their high-energy live shows. The band would sign to the venerable Kill Rock Stars imprint and tour internationally with bands like The Shins and Meat Puppets.
The Shaky Hands went on hiatus in 2011, and the changes came fast and furious for Delffs. He released a stripped-down, self-titled EP as Death Songs. He became a father. He relocated to Idaho. He took odd jobs and worked as a landscaper. All the while, he was strengthening his musical chops by collaborating with artists like Luz Elena Mendoza (Y La Bamba) and Ali Clarys—both of whom play important roles on his new LP, Redesign.
Living in Boise, Delffs remained a beloved figure throughout the Northwest—traveling often and moonlighting in friends’ touring bands. Slowly, through collaboration and time off, the pressure of being a full-time songwriter subsided and a thrilling new confidence emerged in Delffs’ own work.
“I like to disassociate myself with being a songwriter,” he says. “I like to forget I even do it. In the past that would have freaked me out, but I have a healthier relationship with my songs now. It’s less codependent.”
Redesign is the first full-length album Delffs has ever released under his own name. He first shed the Death Songs moniker in 2015, when he unceremoniously dropped a four-track EP of fantastic story-songs simply titled Home Recordings, and last year Mama Bird released Delffs’ reworking of the traditional English Christmas carol, “As I Sat on a Sunny Bank”. But Redesign is a self-contained universe of songs that play with themes that, on the surface, seem at odds with one another: longing for nature (“Somewhere Wild”, an ode to off-the-grid living) and learning to take responsibility (“Song for Aja”, a sweet and percussive tune about Delffs’ now six-year-old son that recalls Cat Stevens and Paul Simon). Musically, these themes are stitched together by the album’s warm, organic production and Delffs’ playing—he’s behind every instrument on the record—but Delffs also connects those seemingly disparate dots under the heading of Redesign. Heading into wilderness provides the insight for dealing with life’s heaviness; the responsibility of being a parent is also an opportunity for endless imaginative self-exploration.
The title track “Redesign” was written during a rafting trip in Eastern Oregon. “I couldn’t go for the full three days, so I went for one day and hiked back to my car alone,” Delffs says. “It took maybe nine hours, and I had no shoes, and there were rattlesnakes. I took naps, I sang in caves. I felt like I let a lot of things go on that walk.”
A redesign means “to change out the parts of yourself that don’t work, or don’t serve anyone,” Delffs explains. “And if you are changing and growing, your relationships have to as well. It seems like redesigning our relationship with the world—and staying open to change and curious about the future—is more important now than ever.”
This is what you can depend on from Nick Delffs. In a world of noise and madness, he will use his music to try and scratch at something human and real. Something helpful. Nick Delffs is a seeker. He shares his discoveries. Redesign is his greatest gift yet.
Redesign will be released on July 21st from Mama Bird Recording Co.